Cultural Appropriation: Understanding the Significance Behind Trends

You wouldn’t steal a movie. You wouldn’t steal a phone or a car. So why do people deem it acceptable to steal a culture?

By Kelsi Taylor

Cultural appropriation has been an important and fast growing topic of conversation in recent times. However, there is one main issue, people just don’t seem to know enough about it before they start to form their own opinion. I am here to explore what cultural appropriation really means, to expose the cultural appropriation of celebrity fashion and how you can help to raise awareness of the issue.

So, what exactly is cultural appropriation?
Cultural appropriation is when someone from a dominant social group in society takes an aspect of culture (hairstyles, traditional clothing, music, etc.) from a minority group, regarding it as ‘trendy’ yet not understanding the symbolism or cultural significance behind it.

What are the issues surrounding cultural appropriation?

One of the main issues is people, particularly celebrities, take aspects from other cultures such as fashion, without understanding the cultural significance behind it. For example, one of the main reasons why people get so annoyed over Caucasian girls wearing traditionally ‘black’ hairstyles or getting inspiration from ‘black’ fashion is due to the fact that there is lack of appreciation for the culture behind them. The appropriator is taking the ‘fashionable’ parts of a culture without acknowledging their significance or advocating for the less ‘fun’ side of a culture, often being silent when it comes to darker issues such as racism.

The main controversies to do with cultural appropriation often stem from celebrities using other cultures to gain popularity or set trends whilst failing to stand up for social issues that affect these cultures and don’t necessarily effect the celebrity directly. For example, one issue that has caused a lot of controversy recently is celebrities appropriating African-American culture such as hairstyles, clothing or music styles. One in particular instance was Kylie Jenner’s cornrows which caused a lot of controversy after Amandla Stenberg left a comment on social media calling out Jenner for cultural appropriation. While this may seem an overreaction to some, the problem Amandla rightfully had with Kylie was not the fact that she was wearing a traditional ‘black’ hairstyle but rather how she chose to use this part of their culture while failing to use her popularity to stand up for issues concerning these people such as police brutality, racism and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Screenshots via Instagram

Another example of celebrities undertaking cultural appropriation was Selena Gomez who wore a Hindu inspired gown during a live performance, adorned with a traditional Bindi on her forehead. Before her performance Gomez failed to do any research regarding the culture or significance behind the traditional dress, instead choosing to utilise traditional dress as an isolated fashion statement.

Is it possible to use aspects of another culture while avoiding Cultural Appropriation?

Yes, it is still possible to wear fashion styles from another culture that is not a crime! Just make sure you do your research to ensure you are both respecting the culture and appreciating it deeper than the aesthetic. Ensure you assist in advocating for other marginalised cultures and don’t use tradition as a trend. An example of this is Oskar Metsavaht’s spring clothing line for his company Osklen. Metsavaht was inspired by the culture of the Asháninka tribe of the Amazon however rather than blatantly taking designs from these people Metsavaht went and visited them, building a relationship with the tribe and learning about their culture. When it came to designing his line Metsavaht took elements from their culture which inspired him such as the red used to paint their faces, or the geometric patterns featured throughout many of their clothes and face paint. When Metsavaht publicised his designs he made sure to draw the attention back to the Asháninkans and their values, therefore spreading their ideals such as their environmental message to a much wider audience. Metsavaht also made sure that part of the proceeds went back to the Asháninkans, giving credit where deserved. One important thing Metsavaht demonstrated that you too must keep in mind when exploring other cultures is to think of it as an exchange, both parties should be benefiting from the experience; remember it’s about appreciating not appropriating.


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